Simon Banks argues that the Liberal Democrats need to focus more on equality, especially equality of outcome.

The preamble to the Liberal Democrats’ constitution says their key values are “liberty, equality and community” Of those, Liberal Reform’s home page mentions only liberty (but also “a fair society”). 19th century Liberals fought for gradual extensions of the franchise. 20th century ones introduced the beginnings of the welfare state and attacked the excessive powers of landowners.

That all people are of equal value (though the death of a doctor may rob more people of life than the death of a porter) is common ground for Liberals, the seed sown by the Christian idea of everyone having a soul of equal worth to God. Beyond that?

The Liberal Democrat right often states Liberals favour equality of opportunity, not outcome, as though it’s agreed. It’s not, though it’s repeated Newspeak style till everyone believes it.

“Equality of opportunity” is a concept useful in strictly defined situations, for example, in discrimination law: opportunity is equal if unfair bias is eliminated.

Say Ms Shah and Mr Smith were shortlisted for one job. Mr Smith got it. She alleges illegal discrimination. The tribunal looks at the person specification and the job description, or whatever requirements for the job it can identify; at the application forms if any, records of interviews and any other selection processes. It decides on the basis of the information before the employer whether Mr Smith demonstrated he was the best candidate (irrespective of weaknesses he may not have shown or strengths Ms Shah had but failed to demonstrate) or whether, on the basis of the information available, she was a stronger candidate. In that case, it makes a presumption of discrimination.

Here, equality of opportunity is at the point the two candidates applied. Only qualifications for the job are relevant.

All inequalities of upbringing, education and social class are ignored. If Ms Shah had wealthy and loving parents and privileged private education, whereas Mr Smith had unhelpful parents and was educated in a struggling school - from the viewpoint of the law – tough.

Liberal Democrat enthusiasts for equality of opportunity focus on education, to bring up the standard so that it’s as near as possible equal for all. That’s an aim which, while right, can only be achieved very incompletely.  As long as some people have more disposable wealth than others, some, caring about their children, will send them to expensive private schools or pay private tutors and the state cannot resource its schools on the same level. Even among state schools, some will be better than others.

That’s just schooling. It’s under a degree of state control. But what about parenting?

What about the genes these two inherited? Plenty of room for unfair advantage there.

Equality of Outcome is easier to evaluate, provided outcomes are defined. Even in the most egalitarian society there will be inequalities of wealth, income or health, but the egalitarian seeks to flatten the pyramid somewhat. So, given the number of outcomes that might be measured is endless, which ones are to be measured?

The focus is mainly on wealth and income. This is understandable: money talks, though some desirable outcomes such as health and happiness don’t necessarily follow it: someone earning a modest income from a smallholding and some computer-based consultancy may be healthier and happier than someone on a vast income dependent on working punishing hours in an insecure job with a bullying culture. However, some desirable things such as happiness or artistic creativity are hard to measure and some, like health, are uncontroversial in that few Liberals will tolerate big disparities of health between different communities or classes. So wealth and income become the main disputed territory.

Since wealth may be inaccessible to someone (they may not be able to access the wealth represented by their home without becoming homeless or becoming liable to high rents, or they may have a life insurance policy), disposable wealth may be a better measure and comparatively easy to assess.

A shallow Liberal sees the state trying to reduce inequalities of outcome through tax policy, say, as unwarranted interference. A deep Liberal looks at how free people are as a result. Can they realise their dreams or at least their practical desires? Take away £100,000 from one millionaire, and there will be few things (s)he can no longer do. Life will go on as before. Give a hundred poor people £1,000 each, and all sorts of new things will become possible.

There are so many ways money can distort opportunity, that equality of opportunity needs a relatively equal society. Thus, measures like Universal Basic Income, more funding for pre-school education and measures to ease the path to employment for people, just out of prison deliver more equality of opportunity by delivering more equality of outcome.

American Liberal philosopher John Rawls argued that if people were unaware of their own advantages and disadvantages, they’d support equality. This strikes me as questionable and theoretical, though surely influenced by Rawls’ experience as a common soldier in World War Two. Few groups are more equal and co-operative than a military or emergency unit in action.

Liberal Democrats shy away from the word “equality”. We talk about promoting diversity instead of fighting inequality. But although I’m instinctively egalitarian, I wonder if equality – of opportunity and outcome – can best be seen in Liberalism as necessary for liberty (because otherwise, many are constrained by poverty) and for community because highly unequal communities are bad at co-operation. Without equality – little liberty; little community.


Simon Banks is a member of the Liberal Democrats from Essex and a member of the Social Liberal Forum Council.

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